Board Game Review: Pandemic Reign of Cthulhu

The current Cthulhu surge is starting to rival that of the zombie, with the multi-tentacled nightmare being the subject of a significant share of games released over the past couple of years. It is though, to be fair, a decent theme for a horror game – after all it’s a theme that’s been around for a hell of a long time, is very well known and is mysterious enough for people to not know exactly what such a freaky thing could be capable of. Bundle that in with Pandemic, a game which caused panic in most players by managing to spiral out of control at a moment’s notice and you’ve got yourself a combination which is enough to make the heart rate of even the most hardened gamer rise when things get a bit too close for comfort. And yet despite these two great themes coming together the end result is, in some ways, a little less brutal than the original Pandemic game. It’s no less of a challenge though, and certainly no less enjoyable.

The idea of Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu is to close all of the portals to an evil reality before the Old Ones can take hold and bring insanity and evil to conquer the world. Much like the original Pandemic game you’ll need to be working together if you want any chance of success – in this game you win together or lose together – and with the game being genuinely tough it’s that teamwork which will determine the fate of Earth. No pressure.

Pretty boy...
Pretty boy…

The original game was made challenging by the outbreak system, which made diseases spread quickly by “overflowing” from a location into those joined to it whenever it got overwhelmed by the disease. As such devastating chain reactions could kick off before long, spreading the disease across the map and making your cleanup job all the more difficult. Reign of Cthulhu doesn’t have that chain reaction mechanic, but instead has something altogether more terrifying when things get pushed beyond the location’s limits: the Old Ones.

These Old Ones are randomly placed across the top of the board, always ending with Cthulhu himself in all of his slimy glory. Whenever a location has three cultists on it (the new version of a disease cube) and gains another, an Old One is woken up, bringing with it a game changing effect which ranges from limiting movement through to losing sanity as a group. Some will be a one off effect, others will last the whole game’s duration, but they’re all a pain in the ass and whenever you wake one up there’s always a horrible moment when you turn the card over, not quite sure just how it’s about to impact your group. As more get woken up the screws get tightened even further, and more cultists get added to the board after each turn. It means that as you’re closing off portals and starting to think you might just win, something happened which throws the whole game into doubt. The last time we played we seemed to be cruising, but a couple of unlucky cards and one misjudged decision and it was game over. We only needed one more turn to close the final postal, but Cthulhu has other ideas. Git.

A winning end - all portals sealed off, with just Cthulhu himself left to wake up at the top... too close!
A winning end – all portals sealed off, with just Cthulhu himself left to wake up at the top… too close!

What surprised me the most about this though was just how easy it was to learn how to play. It was handy to have the reference cards nearby to remind us of how a few of the main mechanics worked, but a couple of games in we were only checking the rules for unusual situations or to double check a card’s effect. The game itself remained intense and unforgiving, but at least we know what we were doing. We even won a couple of times, something which at first drew an embarrassing cheer and high fives, shortly before sitting back down sheepishly and instantly regretting the over elaborate celebrations. But the relief and achievement felt by knowing that the game had been won as a result of us planning out which cards to pass to each other, which portals we were going to head for and how we were going to keep the cultist population to a minimum, that feeling was genuine and spoke volumes about the game.

We lost the next one quickly, and convincingly. Smugness doesn’t last long with this game.

I’ve mentioned sanity a couple of times too, which is the basis for a very neat idea in terms of the characters you take charge of. Each character card has two sides – a sane side, and an inside side. Starting the game with a sane character and 4 sanity tokens, you’ll come across moments when you’ll possibly lose some sanity. These moments,which could be an Old One waking up with a sanity penalty, travelling between portals or coming into contact with a Shoggoth (a large, grotesque creature which stalks around the map towards open portals) will chip away at your sanity, with the very real chance of draining you of it all together. In such an event, your character card is turned over and your abilities will dwindle in various ways, depending on the character. The driver for example, who can move up to 2 spaces on each walking movement instead of just 1, will turn insane and only be able to move 2 spaces, severely denting your ability to move to the spot where you actually want to be. It’s a great mechanic; your characters can’t die off, but their role in the game does change when things get tough.

Old Ones make life pretty tough pretty quickly…

So despite differing quite a bit from the original Pandemic game, Reign of Cthulhu is an excellent addition to the Pandemic brand. For a game slightly more welcoming for groups new to the genre this is a fantastic title; I even had a game by myself controlling multiple characters and it still worked brilliantly, even though is does obviously flatten the co-op side of things. A very worthwhile purchase indeed.

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